Nuclear’s future

Electricity has been the catalyst of the incredible technological progress seen in the 20th century. Electricity powers our lighting, the heating and cooling of our homes, the labor-saving devices that have liberated us, and the smart technology and the interconnectivity that is bringing the world together in the 21st century.

Fossil fuels have played a major role in the massive increase in standards of living that we have seen over the past 200 years. But concerns over climate change are now driving the world towards clean alternatives. The goal is net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Renewables are going to play a very large role. But to be part of a net zero mix the intermittent renewables need to work alongside other low-carbon generation.

Nuclear energy offers a golden opportunity to build a cleaner, more equitable world, in which everyone has access to clean, abundant, affordable energy and a high quality of life.

Today, nuclear energy generates just over ten percent of the world’s electricity, and more than 30 percent of global low-carbon electricity.

The average age of the world’s 437 reactors is 31 years. With the first 80-year license extensions being granted in the US, most of the reactors operable today have the potential to be contributing to a net zero generation mix in 2050. But extending the operations of our existing nuclear fleet, despite being the most cost-effective investment in low-carbon generation according to the IEA, only helps maintain their current contribution to clean energy. To reach net zero, to ensure that everyone has access to ample supplies of energy, to enable economies to grow, we are going to need new nuclear power plants, large and small.

There are currently 57 plants under construction in 19 countries. World Nuclear Association data show that there are currently over 100 reactor units planned and a further 325 units proposed by governments around the world.

Since COP26, we have seen new proposals and policy announcements indicating a growing recognition of the crucial role nuclear energy must play in the future. France announced that it would build between six to 14 new large nuclear reactors to maintain its energy security and to meet its climate change goals. US and Romanian companies announced a partnership to build a first-of-a-kind small modular reactor in Romania. The UK announced regulations to introduce a new funding model to attract a wider range of private investment for new nuclear power projects, as well as funding support for the development of domestic small modular reactor technology. The Netherlands announced plans to build two nuclear power stations in a bid to hit more ambitious climate goals. Poland continues aggressive plans to replace existing coal generation with nuclear plants, large and small. China reiterated plans to build 150 new nuclear units by 2050, while India announced a goal of more than 22 GW of nuclear capacity by 2031. Russiahas a number of active nuclear projects both domestic and abroad, such as in Bangladesh, Egypt, and Turkey. Argentina and Brazil have recently announced solid plans to add new nuclear capacity to their grids.

Our vision is for nuclear energy to be supplying at least 25 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050, and for nuclear technologies to be used increasingly for a broad range of applications beyond electricity generation.

Small modular reactors (SMRs), in particular, can be a game changer. Due to their smaller size and the fact that they are designed with modularity and factory fabrication in mind, they can become much more affordable. The overall capital outlay is smaller, and the smaller size of the project makes them more easily financeable. These reactors are also highly customizable to fit many specialized markets and applications, which opens new opportunities for nuclear energy and will make it easier to integrate dispatchable nuclear power in the increasingly distributed and highly coupled energy systems of the future.

Because nuclear power is the only energy source that can produce low-carbon electricity and low-carbon heat, it opens up enormous opportunities to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors.

For example, heavy industry is very energy-intensive, often reliant on a secure and reliable supply of high temperature process heat. The first of a new generation of high-temperature nuclear reactors that could supply this process heat is currently under construction. Such high temperature nuclear heat could also be used for the thermochemical splitting of water to produce hydrogen, which may have a major role as a future energy carrier.

Excess heat from nuclear power plants is already used to deliver district heating to nearby towns in many countries, thus avoiding another large source of greenhouse gas emissions. And whether it is supplying hydrogen for synthetic fuels or fuel cells, or electricity for charging batteries, nuclear reactors can help met the new energy demands of low-carbon vehicles, for transportation and for shipping.

Nuclear power projects, like all other clean energy infrastructure, are capital intensive and they require a large initial investment that is paid back over several decades. However, they make profound and lasting contributions to sustainable development through the generation of round-the-clock affordable and clean electricity, and through the creation of long-term jobs and significant technological and socio-economic spillovers.

At a time in which many are paying exorbitant prices for their electricity nuclear power plants are cost-competitive and ensure energy security by generating energy locally and independently of geopolitical pressures, the weather, or the season. They have an incredibly small footprint, in terms of land, fuel, and raw materials use, as well as the lowest lifecycle impacts of all electricity generation options.

To unlock the huge potential of nuclear energy we need vision, pragmatism and thought leadership from both policymakers and the finance community. It is essential for governments to establish long-term energy strategies that create a predictable environment for investment, as well as policies and markets that ensure a level playing field for all low-carbon energy sources. If this can be achieved, then nuclear energy will be able to play its full part in helping deliver an affordable and abundant clean energy future.

Sama Bilbao y León is Director General of World Nuclear Association. World Nuclear Association is the international organization that promotes nuclear power and supports the companies that comprise the global nuclear industry.
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